Stronger heroin means different clientele for dealers; Smoking and snorting replace need for injection


SAN FRANCISCO -- The heroin that killed singer Boz Scaggs' son on New Year's Eve is a potent form that during the 1990s has lured more people from various walks of life into using a drug once associated only with skid row junkies.

In years past, when street-grade heroin was 3 percent to 5 percent pure, injecting it was the only way to get high.

But during the past decade, purity has shot up to as much as 50 percent or 60 percent, while the price has fallen to as little as $40 a gram.

The result: More people have been willing to snort and smoke it.

While those methods don't produce as strong a high, they are less intimidating.

It was not known Monday what method Oscar Scaggs used to ingest the fatal dose of heroin.

"It's getting more common now, and people are not shooting it as much anymore. We're finding a lot more people who are smoking it," said police Inspector Matt Hanley, a 10-year veteran of the city's narcotics division.

"They call it 'chasing the dragon.' "

The "dragon" refers to the way the heroin smoke swirls up from a heated base -- usually empty pen tubes or straws -- as users draw it into their lungs.

David E. Smith, founder of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, said he's convinced that heroin dealers are targeting young people as aggressively as cigarette makers have.

Smith had been working with the 21-year-old Scaggs to try to keep him off heroin.

"The kids don't know whether it's 6 percent or 60 percent. It's buyer beware," Smith said.

He said heroin dealers have learned how to attract customers by flooding the market with the cheap, potent product.

Once people are hooked, the dealers can cut it and raise the prices.

"Just like the tobacco industry, it's in a very immoral way marketed to youth. They must have gone to the same business school," Smith said.

Quitting heroin is extremely difficult, and few people manage it successfully.

Instead, many experts believe in methadone maintenance as a way to keep addicts' cravings at bay, allowing them to return to somewhat normal lives.

However, methadone is strictly regulated by the federal government.

Pub Date: 1/06/99

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